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Local ministers who were there recall terror of 9/11

Rev. David Neff Burbank Manor Presbyterian Church provided pastoral care Ground Zero New York City following terrorist attacks September 11

Rev. David Neff, of Burbank Manor Presbyterian Church, provided pastoral care at Ground Zero in New York City following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:43AM

The Rev. David Neff was working on a Sunday sermon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as he sat in his office at Morgan Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

His sermon was on the importance of investing in hope in the midst of trouble. Little did he know, he would soon put his message into practice.

Neff also had an upcoming trip to New York City on study leave, planning to visit synagogues to learn more about the Jewish faith. 

When a co-worker broke the news of the terrorist attack, Neff turned on the radio and listened as the horrific events unfolded.

“I then had a choice,” Neff, who’s now pastor at Burbank Manor Presbyterian Church, said. “Should I still go out there and offer myself as a chaplain or should I even go out there? For me, it was a matter of faith that God said, ‘You can be of use. I want you to go there and serve me.’”

So he boarded the first flight out of Midway Airport following the attack.

“It was a scary experience. (The mood on the plane) was tense. People were looking at each other suspiciously, wondering if someone might be carrying something,” he said.

Once he arrived in New York City, he called parishes to see where he could help. He landed at St. Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero. His job was to walk around the area from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“They said we needed night ministers,” Neff said. “Whenever they’d find a body, I would say a prayer over the deceased or if someone was still alive (I would) say a prayer thanking God.”

He described his first moments at the site as walking through a war zone.

“Once I got there, it was terror. There were still ashes in the air of people who had been burned to death,” Neff said. “The power in Manhattan had also been turned off so it was like these Hollywood lights. It had an eerie quality.”

Neff said he ministered to about 75 people a night for five nights in a row, most of them firefighters and other emergency personnel. While his time at Ground Zero was filled with “nameless and faceless” people, there was one person who will be permanently etched in his memory.

As Neff walked through a checkpoint the first night, an “Italian man with a handlebar mustache” approached him and encouraged him to not be afraid.

“(He) said you need to find your strength and courage,” Neff said, and when Neff asked him his name, the man replied, “You know who I am.”

“I felt like it was an angel who could have been Christ himself. It could have been a crazy lunatic, but it was like someone got me in the right frame of mind,” he said.

He said the events of 9/11 have a lot to teach Americans.

“I would hope we would learn how to build a healthy, vibrant, community of peace and justice and hope to promote a better world,” Neff said. “Be proactive instead of reactive. I think New York did that in amazing ways after 9/11.”

His experience has also changed his personal outlook.

“I have learned to take evil seriously,” he said. “I think a lot of Christians can turn their back on things when life is good, but (we need) to be aware of evil and injustice in other parts of the world.”

Neff, who also teaches theology and spirituality as an adjunct professor at St. Xavier University, said he was “honored” to be in New York City during such a time.

“A lot of people sat by the television and were traumatized by what they saw, but I was able to go and do something. I was able to act out my faith, administer hope,” Neff said. “In a way, I represented a lot of people who wanted to do something but couldn’t.”

He will share his experience during a remembrance service at 10 a.m. Sunday at Burbank Manor Presbyterian Church, 7950 Central Ave.  

Another life changed

Ten years ago, the Rev. Peter Dorn, of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Country Club Hills, was working as a minister of a church in the Queens Village neighborhood in New York City. Like so many people, his life was changed following 9/11.

“A lot of the change has to do with memories and the trauma that followed,” Dorn said. “Even though (the church) didn’t lose anybody, we had a lot of loss with people not being able to live in New York anymore … (they) moved away.”

Dorn did not minister at Ground Zero. Instead, he helped counsel members of his congregation, Grace Lutheran Church, as well as students at the school connected to his parish.

“We had probably six or so children in our school … who had parents who worked in the towers,” Dorn said. “There was a lot of unknown and fear we had to deal with at the school before we could do anything else.”

Amazingly, Dorn said, everyone affiliated with the school or church survived. Looking back on that fateful day, there’s and important lesson to be learned, he said — our country is not invincible. He said building positive relationships with others is the best way to move forward amid great pain.

“I don’t think (the 9/11 attack) lessens God’s love any,” Dorn said. “I think God is faithful through all of that, and he experiences it with us.”

St. John’s Lutheran School, 4231 W. 183rd St., Country Club Hills, will hold a 9/11 remembrance event at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

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